Our response to Harry Sims’ thoughtful letter

It is a very pleasant surprise to find ourselves agreeing with so many of the points Harry Sims puts forth in his recent letter to us. It is always a difficult task to boil down complicated political stances into something as simple as a letter grade; even classroom rubrics don’t always work. We wish very much that he had answered the questionnaire we sent out, but we do appreciate the thoughtful responses, which frequently amount to an “it depends” as the answer to the questions we posed. This is certainly more hopeful than a flat “no”, but after so many years on the commission, we’d hope that Harry could provide voters with a clear stance on many things that our local government ultimately has to choose to do or not do.

We love that Harry says he’s in favor of transit expansion. It’s always good to find common ground, and this area is one that’s important for many Athenians, especially those facing near-constant economic insecurity. We wish he believed in the system’s capacity to go fare-free. We’ve looked at the numbers, and we know it can. Considering the impact of various decisions is a necessity, but there comes a time when continued objections to forward-thinking policy seem less like due diligence and more like stalling. When Harry writes, “I want all the resources our town can provide its citizens but only if those offerings are sustainable, wide reaching and don’t cause an even bigger problem elsewhere,” we couldn’t agree more! We also want sustainable solutions that help everyone in Athens. It seems we only disagree in our belief that what we’ve been doing hasn’t been working, and that our community urgently needs a bold, new policy direction to combat systemic economic and racial inequalities.

On the issue of Complete Streets, Harry says, “Access to safe transportation alternatives is a citywide right and I’ll fight for it.” Hooray! We agree strongly! We want safe bike lanes and paths that promote walking rather than driving. We also agree that these efforts should be focused on underserved neighborhoods. People who can’t afford cars should have a safe, reliable way to get to work and leisure activities. We also believe that Complete Streets means maintaining all streets, including those the city has historically neglected. At the recent WUGA mayoral forum, Harry responded to a question about bike safety by focusing on situations in which cyclists are not following the rules of the road. That is a misplaced priority. No one argues that we shouldn’t prioritize ways to make streets or cars safer just because drivers disobey traffic laws. It’s not just a tragedy when cyclists are hurt or killed; it’s a preventable one.

We know Harry has experienced heinous discrimination throughout his life and we hear and deeply respect that he knows the pain it brings. Our evaluation that he hasn’t supported the current anti-discrimination struggle in Athens is based on his reluctance to speak out more forcefully as well as on votes. Harry writes, “I liked Kelly’s motion to enact an anti-discrimination ordinance. That’s why I voted for it. I did not like Melissa Link’s substitute ordinance because it directed staff to take the opinions of specific people and groups with more seriousness than our overall community.” What he doesn’t say is that Melissa’s proposed amendment would have required public input on the issue, rather than relying exclusively on ACC staff to create a framework for a civil rights committee (an amendment that Kelly also supported). Framing this desire for more transparent and people-driven government as a focus on elevating privileged opinion is wrong, but we are pleased to see Harry working with Knowa Johnson, and we strongly support his campaign’s statement of support for LGBTQ+ people.

On marijuana decriminalization, Harry wants to move more slowly than we do, and his concern for unintended consequences is well meaning but overstated. He writes, “For example, a parallel ordinance will get people caught possessing small amounts of marijuana a ticket instead of a trip to jail. However, if that person is caught by campus police, a probation officer or is having a warrant served by a sheriff’s deputy, they are going to jail because these officers all report to the state rather than the local government.” We certainly agree that it’s awful that folks caught by other jurisdictions would still be subject to draconian laws, as we support full legalization at the state and federal levels. But that’s not an argument against doing what we can at the ACC level. We should do what we can, especially when it means fewer people (especially Black people, arrested for marijuana possession at nearly 5 times the rate of white people in Athens-Clarke County) going to jail for a victimless crime.

On affordable housing, we, like most Athenians, have been disheartened by the Mayor & Commission’s continued inaction, both in general and when housing has been forced onto the agenda by specific proposals requesting variances. When Harry writes about our “misguided” desire to put affordable housing on the city’s most expensive land, he forgets that there is already affordable housing in the downtown area. If we built it once, we can build it again, and bowing to the will of developers while asking nothing from them in return isn’t doing us a lot of good. Gentrification is a real and serious issue, and we believe in strong efforts to address it.

We don’t like sales taxes either. We would greatly prefer to levy a progressive income tax or redistribute the excess wealth of those who have too much at others’ expense. But the local government’s toolbox is limited, and sales taxes are one of the few ways in which UGA students and tourists can give something back to Athens.

We are happy that Harry believes the increase in wages for ACC workers is a good one, on balance, but we believe the campaign for a living wage needs to go much farther. There’s nothing wrong with asking businesses that want to locate here to serve our residents effectively. If we really want to encourage home ownership and fight poverty, a living wage is a critical and just way to accomplish those goals. Providing quality affordable child care is another way to help people pursue careers. When Harry says, “Every time we raise taxes, this may cause another grandmother on a pension to move out of her home because she can no longer afford it,” he’d be right… if we were talking about raising taxes on the poor. But we’re not, and neither is Athens-Clarke County. Property tax revenues are going up as housing values rise, and there are plenty of wealthy Athenians who can afford to pay increased taxes to help lift all our boats. We support a progressive property tax that freezes rates for low-wealth seniors while asking more from those who have the most. Finally, we have to be aware of the very real economic costs of inaction on issues like child care, public transit, criminal justice reform, and more.

Harry’s stance on a plastic bag ban is another example where we would hope he would have a position by now. Athens has been talking about this issue for at least four years. We’re glad he’s open to the idea, but the benefits of banning plastic bags are clear by now, and there are plenty of other communities that have done it and can serve as examples. The two Aldi grocery stores in Athens both require customers to bring their own bags, and they are popular with low-income folks because the savings that result to the consumer make it worth it.

Although Harry says it’s not always a good thing when the growing transformative movement in Athens influences policy, he also doesn’t “always think that’s a terrible thing.” We’re so glad we have common ground! Working toward justice takes many forms, and we believe that, mostly, Commissioner Sims and A4E want the same things for Athens. We all want folks to be able to stay in their homes, to be free of constant economic anxiety, to be able to send their kids to great schools and to build rich relationships and a shared community. Our political disagreements are just about whether what we’ve been doing is getting us there, or if we need to take a vastly different direction to address the problems that are standing in the way of that vision.

A4E is deeply committed to Athens. Many of us were born here or have made our lives here for years. We’re not short-term residents, here for a degree or a band and off to somewhere else in the near future. We have homes we love and neighborhoods we cherish. Some of us are even PTO members or bake sale volunteers. And we’re proud of all that. We just want a community that works for all of us, and we believe we can get there together.

Athens for Everyone
May 1, 2018


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